How to Learn a Language

by Brian Benson | You’re never too old.

How to Learn a Language

First, turn to your friend Thom and ask if he wants to get out of the basement and go sit on the screened porch. When he says yes, turn off the TV that’s playing the closing credits of a Saved by the Bell episode in which Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski kiss. Follow Thom past shelves full of Legos and Matchbox cars that have begun gathering dust. Follow him up the stairs and past the kitchen where the moms are talking about whatever moms talk about. Follow him through the sliding door that leads to the screened porch and sit beside him on the wicker couch. Look at the pine trees and smell the dying leaves. Talk about soccer and farts. Try to find a cool way to say how cool it is to be inside and outside at the same time. Give up and think about Kelly Kapowski and Zack Morris.

Shiver, because it is autumn in Wisconsin and you are all skin, no fat. Want to not need a blanket. Need a blanket. Pull the orange one from the basket at your feet and open it on your lap. Ask if Thom wants some blanket. Feel nervous as you ask, because Thom is a year older than you and five times as sure of himself; because he has black hair and blue eyes and knows how to water-ski and when he is happy you are happy; because he makes the rules to the games you play, and if you don’t follow them he’ll say you’re not invited to his birthday party. Feel relieved when Thom takes some of the blanket and pulls it over his legs. Then feel a feeling you don’t have a word for.

Talk about vampire bats and flying squirrels. Talk about that time you peed in a spray bottle and chased his screaming brother around the yard. Talk about how pretty Kelly Kapowski is and how cool Zack Morris is and how lucky Zack Morris is to get to kiss Kelly Kapowski. Feel happy that Thom is smiling and laughing as you talk. Feel happy that you are sitting together on a cold porch under a warm blanket. Feel like you are in a fort together. Tell Thom that Zack Morris is really handsome.

Watch Thom’s face. Notice that he’s still smiling, but squinting, too. Realize that he’s looking at you the way he looks at you when he’s about to tell you you’re not invited to his birthday party.

Don’t flinch when he says, “That’s gay.”

Or maybe it’s, “That’s gross.”

Or maybe, “You’re gross.”

Don’t worry about knowing exactly what he says. Thirty years from now, you won’t remember. All you’ll remember is feeling like a poked balloon. All you’ll remember is feeling like something is leaking out of you, something too big or small to wrap your fingers around, something you want back.

Try to take it back. Say, “I was just saying.” Say, “I don’t like him.” Say nothing. Stare at Thom as he stares at you. Wonder if you should tell him that last year you read in Tiger Beat about the actress who plays Kelly Kapowski and then sent her a love letter that your mom proofread. Wonder if Thom ever wrote a letter like that. Wonder if he is messing with you. Wonder if he also likes both Kelly Kapowski and Zack Morris and knows that that is okay and just isn’t saying so, like that one time when he and Nathan were laughing loud and wouldn’t tell you why no matter how nicely you asked.

Don’t ask.

Just say you didn’t mean it. Say this to Thom, and after he’s gone home and you’ve gone inside, say it to yourself. Keep saying it until you believe it. Then spend a decade or two only thinking about Kelly Kapowski and only saying things you think Thom would like to hear, even when he moves a thousand miles away. Keep doing this until, one day, you also find yourself a thousand miles away, in another country, looking at a man who is looking at you and who doesn’t speak the languages you know best. Feel a feeling you don’t have a word for. Wish you had a word. Wish you’d had it decades ago. Wonder if it’s true that adults can’t learn another language. See how it feels when you try.

Brian Benson is the author of Going Somewhere and coauthor, with Richard Brown, of This Is Not for You. Originally from the hinterlands of Wisconsin, Brian now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at the Attic Institute and works with teens as a Writer in the Schools. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Sweet, Oregon Humanities, Hippocampus, and Blood Tree Literature, among other publications. You can find all of his work at

This essay originally appeared in Hunger Mountain #28 (Summer 2023).

Share this on: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn
Short Reads is 🏡 edited by Hattie Fletcher; 🌲 fact-checked & proofread by Chad Vogler; and 🍂 illustrated by Anna Hall. This issue was ✈️ delivered to our 1,087 subscribers by Stephen Knezovich.

Support our efforts: buy us a coffee.
Want more like this? Subscribe to Short Reads and get one fresh flash essay—for free—in your inbox every Wednesday.